TCS Daily

Boo, Yay, Boo, Yay...Rewind, Repeat

By Melana Zyla Vickers - June 10, 2005 12:00 AM

With George Bush set to talk about North Korea with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun Friday, here's a primer on Washington-Pyongyang relations, 1991-2005:

        Boo, North Korea won't admit it has nuclear weapons, let's rattle sabers. 
        Yay, North Korea will talk about whether it has weapons, let's give them aid.
        Boo, North Korea says it has nuclear weapons, let's rattle sabers. 
        Yay, North Korea says it will talk about its weapons, let's give them aid. 
        Boo, North Korea says it won't talk the way we want it to talk, let's 
        rattle sabers.

Now, surprise surprise, North Korea says it will talk, according to the White House. Yay. Apparently had something to do with Dick Cheney calling North Korea's president "mister." (As opposed to what -- the Good Humor Man?) Already, there's a discussion among Washington's Koreascenti of what to give them in terms of aid.

If a decade of this sort of diplomatic fan-dancing has taught one thing, it's the following: North Korea's in it for the dancing. Dancing is the path to aid. And the leadership believes the only way to keep getting asked to dance is to keep playing what's-behind-my-fan with its nuclear threat. We play along: 'Show me, I'll give you presents. Show me, I'll give you presents. Ok, now give me what you showed me. No? Bad North Korea! Bad! No more dancing!' Then, a few years later, it starts again: 'Show me...'

Playing the same, one extortionate trick over and over again is precisely what can be expected from the world's most backward Communist regime, which has no other means -- besides selling arms and running organized crime in Japan -- of generating income. North Korea is, after all, a country that has largely done away with money, that has eschewed even a modicum of socialist-style economic reforms a la Vietnam or Cuba, and that has forced the population it hasn't yet killed to eat leaves and dirt. It has the notoriety of experiencing the only famine ever visited on an urbanized, literate population in peacetime, according to North Korea-watcher Nicholas Eberstadt.

It's one thing to play one trick, if you're a one-trick fan dancer. Falling for the same extortionate trick is something else entirely. Yet the U.S. appears headed in just such a direction. The trouble is, it has few alternatives.

Unlikely Alternative No. 1 -- Military Action: Theoretically the U.S. and South Korea could bomb North Korean nuclear or military sites. But that perennial threat hardly even looks plausible right now. The U.S. military is preoccupied with Iraq. And the government in Seoul, in the past a partner of the U.S. because U.S. troops virtually guarantee South Korean security, is far less in step than it ever has been. Left-leaning President Roh is engaged in d├ętente with North Korea. He has resisted anything but the most generous aid terms for the North, and certainly would not favor military action, instead would loudly remind Washington that Seoul would bear the brunt of any North Korean retaliation. Similarly China, North Korea's neighbor to the north, already has a Korean refugee problem, and would dislike a bigger flow of refugees more than it dislikes a nuclear-armed peninsula. It also appears that, as China gets used to a nuclear-armed North Korea on a divided peninsula, it may prefer that devil to a united peninsula.

Covert action to unseat the Kim Jong Il government could work, and in some ways represents the best hope for change. But it's difficult to see how U.S. covert operators could penetrate the hermetic North with strength enough to matter, particularly when the U.S. doesn't have the cooperation of border states South Korea or China.

Unlikely Alternative No. 2 -- Tighter Isolation/Deliberate Neglect: Theoretically the U.S. could completely cut ties, negotiations, etc with the North regardless of their renewed interest in talking. Pyongyang has, after all, violated enough agreements to make continued isolation a valid response on Washington's part. Without a dance partner Pyongyang's regime could eventually trip into its final deathspin, as it would lose its one channel for large sums of aid, face an ever-growing outflow of refugees, and -- one hopes against hope -- risk overthrow by a stimulated opposition. Even without facing opposition, there's a chance the Kim Jong Il regime would dry to a crisp of its own accord.

The trouble is, again, that South Korea and China don't favor changing the status quo of periodic fan-dancing, as change invites instability to their borders. And instability is something they dislike more than the already tangible nuclear threat. A post-Roh South Korea, led by a president who is less pro-North, might choose the path of tighter isolation. But it's not clear that even the U.S. has the stomach for this tactic -- North Korea would surely starve its citizens once again, preying on American consciences through the international media that somehow we forced the population into famine. Besides, as long as U.S. has tens of thousands of troops on the ground in South Korea, unilateral neglect by Washington is unlikely.

Unlikely Alternative No. 3 -- Stop Caring About Nuclear Proliferation: Part of why Washington has to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nukes is that it has to pressure Tehran, too, and must have some consistency in its policies. But the story of successful policy-making in the area of non-proliferation is alarmingly short. Even when the global community or United Nations is in accord that a country violates agreements on the buildup or proliferation of arms -- think Iraq, for example -- there's not the multi-country will to enforce the agreements. Non-proliferation talks mean nothing until the U.S. backs them with force. And where there's little likelihood the U.S. will back North Korea agreements with force (see Unlikely Alternative No. 1) they aren't really worth the conference-room cushion pads they're negotiated on. That uselessness should, by force of logic, lead us to stop talking.

But the promise of ineffectiveness has never stopped diplomatic chatter before. There's always hope that talks will lead to some collateral benefit -- such as buying time for policy-makers without any new ideas. Even more grandiose hopes might include the dream that talks lead to aid and inspections, which will provide a channel for covert operators to penetrate the North. Or that the North Koreans, by force of exposure to their negotiating partners, will convert to a new political or economic model. So hope springs eternal in the world of diplomatic dancing. And besides, there's a whole corps de ballet of non-proliferation negotiators and report-writers out there who live to dance.

So here the world goes, into another round of talks in which the outcome is fully predictable. North Korea will promise to take steps toward nuclear facility inspections. The United States, South Korea, China, and Japan will offer it a package of aid. Within a few years, North Korea will break the deal, somehow. We'll be back to "boo," a prequel to being back to "yay."

The only way to stop dancing is to act on one of the alternatives. But given the current governments in Seoul and Beijing, and the current preoccupations of the U.S. military, those alternatives are less likely than a good meal north of the DMZ.


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